Let's talk about influence. As an engineer, how do you get it, earn it, wield it, or lose it?
(The answer is NOT "become a manager.". In a well-functioning org, managers have mostly separate sphere of influence. If this is not true of yours, change it or leave.)
The way I think about this is by thinking of supremely influential engineers I have worked with, and how they amassed and used their power.
All of us have a place of authority we feel most comfortable leaning on. These can be loosely grouped into archetypes.
(I am going to avoid discussing the overlapping and interconnected issues of power linked to gender, race, and class, unless I get *super* ambitious towards the end. For now let's just allow that it's structurally much harder for some than others, ok?)
Let's examine each of the sources of your power and how it becomes influence. Starting with the ur-power: Doing.
"Code wins arguments."
How many times have you seen a technical dispute resolved by who is willing to do the work? Or resolved one way.. then reversed by doing?
Doing is the engineering superpower. In the absence of doing, nothing gets done. We don't always have to convince and cajole and coerce others into building on our behalf, we can just *build^.
This may seem basic, but it matters.
Let's examine some variations as archetypes.
"Doing the work that is desperately hard and needed, and desperately dull.". SOC2 compliance, data backups and restores, any auth integration ever. If you are this engineer, you have a deep well of respect and gratitude to draw from.
Another: "debugger of last resort". Often the engineer who has been there longest or originally built the system. If you are cheerful and forthcoming and helpful with your history and context, this is a huge asset (folks usually overestimate your indispensability)
The "expert" archetype is closely related. If you are the deep subject matter expert in some technology, you have a shit ton of influence over anything that gets built involving that technology. Stay up on current shit to retain your edge.
There are people who are just unbelievably productive work horses. Some work long hours, others just have an unerring instinct for how to maximize impact (this often maps to junior / senior.)
*Nobody* wants to piss off those people. Their consent is critical for... everything.
Not all influence is rooted in raw technical strength or output.
Some engineers are infinitely curious, and have a way of consistently sniffing a few steps ahead. They'll play around with something pointless, you wanna scold them; then they save your ass from total catastrophe.
Some engineers solve problems socially, by making friends and trading tips and fixes in the industry.
Some are dazzlingly lazy and blow your mind with the elegant short cuts they devise.
Some are recruiting magnets, worth a salary for everyone who wants to work with them again.
Some are skilled at driving consensus among stakeholders.
Some are killer explainers and educators.
Some are the senior engineer that everyone silently wants to grow up to be.
Some can tell such an inspiring vision of tomorrow that everyone will run off to make it so.
Engineers who have spent time as managers are fucking invaluable because they can translate business goals for jr engineers in their native language.
They also make good tech leads. They can carve up projects into pieces that challenge but do not overwhelm each contributor.
Some engineers are a royal pain in the ass because they question and challenge every system and hierarchy. But these are sharp, powerful rocks that can polish great teams.
Oh and let's not forget engineers who are on call. This creates a deep, deep well of power and moral authority -- to make demands, to drive change, to prioritize.
I don't understand why so few seem to realize and use this. 🤔
... I could go on all night. Engineering is such a powerful role and skill set.
Everyone has a mode or two where they feel powerful and comfortable. Seek out mentors or peers with modes that are similar to yours, and swap stories to accelerate your development.
But never tell me you need to become a manager to gain access to the information and power you need to drive change, to have a voice in decisions you care about.
Have you tried?
Most of you have far more power than you are used to thinking about or wielding. But to my mind, that is literally the definition of leadership.
Leadership is power, wielded.
Managers need to be capable all-around pinch hitter leaders, but wanting power is the worst possible reason to become one.
(Confession: that's why I became a manager.)
Power naturally flows to managers, but that's why it's so important to have managers who *push back*
Managers have power and influence, but the real meaty decisions about building to meet the business goal: those belong properly to the doers, the people who are closest to them.
So don't cut yourself off from the source of your power by denying it exists. ☺️
... oh jeez, and the most obvious thing of all for amassing influence:
You can't have influence if nobody knows what you think or feel. You can't lead if nobody knows where you're trying to take them. So you have to be willing to fail and be wrong, in public.
You can follow @mipsytipsy.
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